What to Do in Amsterdam: The City of Museums, Canals, and Bicycles
When I first arrived in Amsterdam I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. Walking through the red light district I almost felt I was in the Bali or Las Vegas of Europe. I wasn’t even sure what to do in Amsterdam as even though I’m usually organised I hadn’t done too much research before arriving in the city.
Actually my love for Amsterdam wasn’t the love at first sight kind, but rather a slow flame that after my four days in the city had finally burned into something more.
It took me a couple of days to actually find the best part of Amsterdam, which, at least for me wasn’t the “coffee shops” but the little cafes (that actually serve coffee), the bicycles scattered along store fronts, the canals and the countless amazing and interesting museums that you can explore.
So take my advice and don’t get high until the sunsets. It will give you time and the ability to fully get to know this awesome city.
I had four full days in Amsterdam and for my last three days I activated the 72hr Iamsterdam Card. It’s a city card that works basically the same as the Budapest Card I’ve previously written about; you get free public transport for three days, entry to most museums and places, discounts at restaurants and some free activities.
So in case you were wondering if it is worth it I’ve put in the costs of each activity with/without the card and I’ll do the maths at the end of this post!
I am a massive fan of Dutch art. In fact if I had to pick art from one country it would probably be from the Netherlands and if I had to pick one favourite artist it would probably be Rembrandt, The Netherland’s beloved son.
Hence I was super excited to head to the Rijksmuseum which showcases a massive collection of Dutch Art. It is basically Amsterdam’s answer to the Louvre.
The museum is huge and unfortunately a little bit of a maze so make sure you dedicate enough time to fully appreciate the art. I spent four hours here and I probably could have spent more.
The Rijksmuseum’s most famous piece is the Night’s Watch, Rembrandt most renowned painting. I was basically fangirling all over the place, although personally I prefer Syndics of the Drapers’ Guild.
One of the best things about the Rijksmuseum is that the large and famous paintings come with information boards that provide some great information on various parts of the painting and their significance.
It was so informative that I regretted not having got the audio guide to guide me through the exhibition. Although I probably would have needed another four hours in the museum if I had one of those!
Here are some of my other favourites:
The Rijksmuseum building itself is also very beautiful so make sure you stop outside to take some photos.
Cost with Iamsterdam Card– €15 (€2.50 discount), Cost without the Iamsterdam Card– €17.50
The IAmsterdam Sign
In the same way the modern London Eye has become a quintessential part of a visit to London, the Iamsterdam signs have become a symbol of Amsterdam.
Personally I wasn’t really in to fighting a bunch of other tourists to get a photo of a bunch of block letters but chances are you’ll probably find yourself taking a selfie in front of them.
The most popular one is located outside of the Rijksmuseum but if want a quieter setting there are actually some more near the (science/aquarium building).
Cost with/without the IAmsterdam Card– Free!!
The Van Gogh Museum
Located next to the Rijksmuseum is Amsterdam’s second art museum which is a tribute to the Netherland’s other beloved son; Vincent Van Gogh.
Here I was able to not just discover some brilliant art by Van Gogh, but actually get to know the man himself. The museum tells the story of Vincent Van Gogh, including the development of his art, his inspirations, his mentors, his personal struggles and the struggles of his relatives to keep the collection together following his death.
A lot of people only choose to go to one museum (The Rijksmuseum or the Van Gogh), usually because of time and/or budget constraints. But I’m not so sure I could pick just one. I visited these museums more than two months ago and since then I’ve been to countless others all over Europe, but these two are still my favourite.
Do yourself a favour and find the time and room in your budget (a couple of nights eating frites for dinner should do it) to visit both of these!
Cost with Iamsterdam Card- Free, Cost without Iamsterdam Card- €17
The Anne Frank House
As a child I first really learnt about the Holocaust by reading the private diary entries of a girl hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam. Like many people, I was incredibly moved by Anne Frank’s story and thus visiting the Anne Frank House was always a priority for my visit to Amsterdam.
Like when visiting any other holocaust related site, it’s hard to label this experience as ‘incredible or amazing’. But it isn’t something I would miss on a visit to Amsterdam.
I think we often look at the raw statistics of the lives lost in the Holocaust, but it’s only when we hear the personal stories, like that of Anne that we really understand the cost of Hitler’s Final Solution.
What I thought was particularly well done by the Anne Frank House is that they ban photos, so I wasn’t left feeling uncomfortable by disrespectful tourists taking selfies like at Dachau.
Even in low season the line for the Anne Frank House can extend three blocks out of the building so pre-book your tickets online!
Cost with/without the Iamsterdam Card- €9
The Canals of Amsterdam are UNESCO World Heritage Listed. Amsterdam and its canal systems were actually built as an artificial port city in the early 17th century.
Wherever you go in Amsterdam you’ll find yourself walking along and across the city’s famous canals. In my opinion the canals are the most beautiful part of any visit to Amsterdam, the way they are set out almost makes you feel like you are in a quaint country town rather than in a big European city.
I love wandering the canal areas and the streets around them. Make sure you go both during the day and at night because you’ll have a different experience..
They are also a great place for people watching as hundreds of people still live on the house boats that line the canals. If you look closely you might house boat dwellers going about their daily lives, like the man I spotted hanging out his washing to dry on the back of the boat.
For a truly unique Amsterdam experience you can even stay in a houseboat. You’ll find plenty of them on Airbnb.
Cost with/without the Iamsterdam Card- It’s free just to walk around the canals
A Canal Cruise
Whilst it’s great to wander the canals on foot, by far the best way to see them is on a canal cruise.
There are about half a dozen companies that offer a canal cruise and they are all essentially the same. It takes about an hour and you get headphones to plug in to socket near your chair. You can then sit back and stare out the window while hearing about the history of the specific places that you pass.
However I would absolutely not recommend the ‘Lovers Canal Cruise’ company! They cancelled the 11am canal cruise I was booked on and instead put all of us on their hop on/hop off boat. What this meant is that we didn’t have a boat with opening windows which meant I couldn’t take any great photos and we also took two hours instead of one as the boat stopped at every stop.
But with any other company, the canal cruise is highly recommended. And this is where you really get value out of your Iamsterdam Card, as a canal cruise if free with your card.
Cost with IAmsterdam Card- Free , Cost without IAmsterdam Card- €14
A Bicycle Tour
I spent my whole third day in Amsterdam on a Bicycle tour with Mike’s Bike Tours. There are many companies that offer the same tour but Mike’s was the only one offering it on this particular day.
Whilst I usually try to do a free walking tour of a city, to orientate myself and learn more about the history, Amsterdam is best explored on a bike tour.
Amsterdam is a city of bike riders, it can actually be pretty scary to avoid getting hit by the constant stream of locals on bikes who don’t give a damn about road rules or pedestrians.
I think it would be a great idea to do this on your first day in Amsterdam because it would help you find your bearings, but also ease you into the whole riding a bicycle amongst the crazy locals thing. Then you could always hire a bicycle to get around the city for the rest of your time.
I learnt lots about the city and the culture of Amsterdam from our informative and slightly quirky guide. Some of the places we got to explore were Amsterdam’s park, the Museum’s Quarter, the Red Light District and the windmill beer house.
It’s a long day so don’t try to organise much for the afternoon. Also expect to wake up the next morning feeling a little sore between the legs.
Cost with/without Iamsterdam Card- €25 (€22 with a student card)
The Food Hallen
I mentioned this is my food post but I think it is a destination in itself. The vibe at this local food market is just amazing and I wish I hadn’t only found it on my last night in Amsterdam.
Cost with/without Iamsterdam Card- As much as you want to spend on food and drinks (average cost of a meal and drink around €20).
The Tulip Museum
I decided on my last day in Amsterdam to check out some of the more obscure museums that the city offers. The Netherlands have an obsession with tulips, it’s their national flower and a national symbol.
The Tulip Museum is so unique. You won’t need longer than 30 minutes to one hour here but during that time you’ll learn all about Tulip Mania in the Netherlands.
Cost with Iamsterdam Card- Free, Cost without – €5
The Jewish Museum
The second museum on my obscure museum mission was the Jewish Museum. The museum had a very informative audio guide that was free with the entrance, so I found myself learning so much about Jewish life in Amsterdam through the centuries.
Of course the museum didn’t gloss over the thousands of Jews that lost their lives when the German’s occupied but actually provided great information and personal testimonies about what life was like for the Dutch Jews not just during the war, but also after liberation.
Cost with Iamsterdam Card- Free, Cost without- €15
The Resistance Museum (Verzetsmuseum)
My last museum of the day and final stop in Amsterdam happened to be my favourite. As you have probably realised by now I’m a huge history buff and after living in the North of France for three months, I’m particularly interested in the European World Wars.
The way this museum was set up was really superb. At the start of the museum you watch a short film that shows you how the Netherlands began to be occupied by the Nazis at the start of the war. At the end of the film they ask you the question- ‘What would you do? Adapt? Cooperate? Resist?’.
And the whole museum centres around that very question. You’ll find personal testimonies and heartening stories about the hundreds of thousands of Dutch people that hid not just Jews but other groups of people such as key members of the resistance who had been discovered by the Nazis, or young men who had escaped from work assignments in Germany.
So much of what we know about World War II is blanketed in tragedy but it was great to read and learn about the people who managed to remain human.
At the end of the museum you are asked the same question- and I’m still not sure how I would answer.
Cost with IAmsterdam Card- $0, Cost without- €10
Getting Around/Public Transport
If you are prepared to do a lot of walking you can do Amsterdam on foot but there are some pretty large distances to cover across the city. I found that I made lots of use of the free transport included on my 72hr Iamsterdam Card.
The other option is of course to hire a bicycle, although that depends on the weather and how comfortable you are doing that.
Cost of 72hr of Unlimited Public Transport- €16.50
Cost of Bicycle Hire (average)- €25
So is the card worth it?
Here is the value I got out of the 72hr Card:
Van Gogh Museum- €17
Canal Cruise- €14
The Tulip Museum- €5
The Jewish Museum- €15
The Resistance Museum- €10
Public Transport- €16.50
Total Cost- €80
Cost of Actual Card- €75
So I saved all of 5 euros! But the IAmsterdam Card also has its conveniences. For one having a three day pass on the public transport is much less complicated than worrying about other tickets.
What I would actually recommend for getting the most money out of the Iamsterdam Card is actually getting the two day pass.
I did the Van Gogh Museum and the Canal Cruise on one day, and the other museums in one day and I didn’t feel rushed at all. Thus even without the Rijksmuseum discount of €2.50 (as you definitely need an extra day for it), you would still be getting €77.50 worth of entrance fees for only €65.
Again, it’s always going to depend on what type of traveller you are, what activities you plan to do and how long you are spending in the city.
Just like I did with the Budapest Card I’m going to recommend that you write down everything that you plan on doing, look up the entrance fees/costs of the activities and work out if it will work for you!
Please note that I was a guest of Amsterdam Tourism who provided me with a 72hr IAmsterdam Card and entrance to the Rijksmuseum and Anne Frank Huis. As always you get my honest opinion regardless of who is paying.